We’ve commented from time to time that a possible financial flashpoint is countries that got themselves in the same fix as Iceland , of having a banking sector engaged in the generally risky practices that were standard form recently, and was outsized relative to the economy (Willem Buiter also points out that that precarious situation is made worse by having your own teeny currency).
While Ireland is in that position, a more immediate trigger for trouble is Eastern Europe. We’ve mentioned in particular the precarious position of Austria, which was a big lender to the region. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard remarks in the Telegraph:
Austria’s finance minister Josef Pröll made frantic efforts last week to put together a €150bn rescue for the ex-Soviet bloc. Well he might. His banks have lent €230bn to the region, equal to 70pc of Austria’s GDP.
“A failure rate of 10pc would lead to the collapse of the Austrian financial sector,” reported Der Standard in Vienna. Unfortunately, that is about to happen.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says bad debts will top 10pc and may reach 20pc. The Vienna press said Bank Austria and its Italian owner Unicredit face a “monetary Stalingrad” in the East.
Mr Pröll tried to drum up support for his rescue package from EU finance ministers in Brussels last week. The idea was scotched by Germany’s Peer Steinbrück. Not our problem, he said…..
Yves here. Recall we said a few days ago (based on admittedly a small number of conversations, but the Austrian and German businessmen were knowledgeable) that the Austrian banks were widely known to be bankrupt, that Austrians knew they needed to be rescued and would need help. The Austrians were highly confident that Germany would fund a bailout, and the Germans were mystified that the Austrians were so certain. The Germans’ doubts appear to have been well founded. Back to the piece:
Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, said Eastern Europe has borrowed $1.7 trillion abroad, much on short-term maturities. It must repay – or roll over – $400bn this year, equal to a third of the region’s GDP. Good luck. The credit window has slammed shut….
“This is the largest run on a currency in history,” said Mr Jen.
In Poland, 60pc of mortgages are in Swiss francs. The zloty has just halved against the franc. Hungary, the Balkans, the Baltics, and Ukraine are all suffering variants of this story. As an act of collective folly – by lenders and borrowers – it matches America’s sub-prime debacle. There is a crucial difference, however. European banks are on the hook for both. US banks are not.
Almost all East bloc debts are owed to West Europe, especially Austrian, Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks. En plus, Europeans account for an astonishing 74pc of the entire $4.9 trillion portfolio of loans to emerging markets….
Whether it takes months, or just weeks, the world is going to discover that Europe’s financial system is sunk, and that there is no EU Federal Reserve yet ready to act as a lender of last resort or to flood the markets with emergency stimulus….
Erik Berglof, EBRD’s chief economist, told me the region may need €400bn in help to cover loans and prop up the credit system….
The sums needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, w…We are nearing the point where the IMF may have to print money for the world, using arcane powers to issue Special Drawing Rights.
Its $16bn rescue of Ukraine has unravelled. The country – facing a 12pc contraction in GDP after the collapse of steel prices – is hurtling towards default, leaving Unicredit, Raffeisen and ING in the lurch. Pakistan wants another $7.6bn. Latvia’s central bank governor has declared his economy “clinically dead” after it shrank 10.5pc in the fourth quarter…
“This is much worse than the East Asia crisis in the 1990s,” said Lars Christensen, at Danske Bank.
This is looking ugly indeed, and that’s before you consider that European banks are on average much more leveraged than their US counterparts.